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Schools Can't Do It Alone: Why 'Doubly Disadvantaged' Kids Continue to Struggle Academically

A report on childhood poverty proves once again that no single measure can cure poverty's ills.

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Yet some have rejected wrap-around models, endorsing school-only reform, because, as Michelle Croft and Grover J. Whitehurst of the Brookings Institute argue, “[t]here is no compelling evidence that investments in parenting classes, health services, nutritional programs, and community improvement in general have appreciable effects on student achievement in schools in the U.S.”

MTO represents a less well publicized effort to help children overcome not just home disadvantages but also community inequity.

In most reform efforts, the policy focus remains on the schools themselves as a mechanism to overcome poverty indirectly. While the debates about how to reform education and how to address poverty remain contentious, the evidence is growing that poverty and inequity are reflected in and perpetuated by community-based public schools, suggesting that school-only reform is inadequate.

Decades of data—for example, results from the SAT—have detailed a strong correlation between family income/parental education and student test scores. More recently, the evidence also reveals that schools and students are strongly impacted by the communities within which they sit.

One analysis, " A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City" shows that New York communities are segregated by economic status, and in return, the children in high-poverty neighborhoods attend schools that serve concentrated inequity and struggle with low test scores. High-poverty neighborhoods surround high-poverty schools, and evidence suggests those schools reflect the inequity of the neighborhood, but fail to overcome it.

As Pedro Noguera explains in the report’s preface:

“Unfortunately, this same pattern of disparity is found in students’ access to good schools and to all of the opportunities that accompany this access. As this report from the Schott Foundation reveals, more often than not, the opportunity to learn and to attend a high performing school is largely determined by the neighborhood in which a child lives.”

A similar national study, " Housing Costs, Zoning and Access to High-Scoring Schools," confirms that inequity in the home and community determines students’ access to high-quality opportunities in their schools:

“With these challenges in mind, policy leaders have taken a number of steps over the past few decades to expand access to high-quality education for disadvantaged groups….While all of these efforts deserve careful consideration, none directly addresses one of the central issues that limit educational opportunity for low-income and minority children: their disproportionate concentration in low-performing schools.”

MTO, too, failed to produce the outcomes expected on this front: for example, the program’s attempt to move children out of high-poverty neighborhoods did not guarantee they would attend higher quality schools. In fact, as the report lays out, the schools attended by the children whose families received vouchers were “still usually in the bottom one-fourth of the statewide performance distribution” – giving proof to the deep complexity of what is required to effectively address the multiple disadvantages of children living and learning in poverty.

Moreover, these “doubly disadvantaged” children are likely to find inequity of opportunity continues beyond K-12 schooling as well.

At City Limits, Norm Fruchter, reporting on college readiness and neighborhood demographics, explains that college access parallels access to high-quality schools for children in impoverished neighborhoods:

“…After a decade of reform efforts, ZIP code and income are still the major factors predicting college success for New York City’s high school graduates.  Is Demography Still Destiny?, a study recently conducted by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR), found that the college readiness rates of the city’s high school graduates were strongly and negatively correlated with the percentage of black and Latino residents in the city’s neighborhoods.”

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